I love Christmas. I mean, as far as pastors go, I feel like I’m the pastor version of Elf. I love almost everything about Christmas. I love the music, the images, the movies and most of all the story and theology behind Christmas. It occurred to me the other day that Christmas is the time of year when everyone feels permission to be a kid again, in the best possible way. We hope and we dream during Christmas. We love to be transported, at this time of year, to our childhood – to times when things seemed simpler, and purer.
All of this hoping, dreaming, and nostalgia during Christmas means that churches have a unique opportunity at this time of year. It is one of the most strategic opportunities all year to serve your people. It is a great privilege to be able to present, year after year, the story of the birth of the Messiah to those who are part of our congregation. We often joke at this time of year about the “Lilly and Poinsettia” crowd (those who attend church only at Easter and Christmas), but let’s not forget that this makes this time of year a special and strategic opportunity to share the love of Jesus in powerful ways with many who wouldn’t otherwise be in our services.
I recognize that, while our faith is an intellectual pursuit, it is also a decidedly emotional pursuit. So many of those who are in our churches are connected emotionally to their faith, as they should be. Christmas is one of the most emotional times of the year. Because of this, I fear that many churches may miss out at Christmas. While contextualization and mission often leads churches to be contemporary in their typical expressions of worship, I think Christmas is another matter altogether. Recognizing the emotional element of our faith, the importance of nostalgia at Christmas, and the importance of Christmas itself, I think it’s helpful for churches to reach back into tradition and nostalgia at Christmas. It is important to help people at this time of year remember their childhood. As we lead people in celebrating a traditional Christmas, we touch them in their heart and give them an opportunity to think about Christ in ways that they might not otherwise do, all through the rest of the year.
So, allow me to recommend a few traditions that we celebrate at our church each year that are powerful, Christ-centered, and recognize the deep emotional connection that nearly every person has during the Christmas season.
While Advent is often viewed as a celebration predominantly experienced in liturgical churches, I think this is unfortunate. Non-liturgical Evangelical churches should also enjoy the celebration of Advent. Christmas is arguably the most hectic time of the year. Advent is an opportunity for our churches to slow down and catch our breath while we slowly and methodically walk to the manger together. At our church we call Advent the slow walk to the manger. We celebrate with an Advent wreath, in which we light a candle each week. We also have a family in the church lead us in reading an appropriate scripture text.
2. Christmas Eve
I will be honest, there was a time when I really did not like candlelight Christmas Eve services. But those days are long behind me. They have become one of my favorite annual traditions. Like Advent, there is much rich tradition and history with Christmas Eve services. What’s more, outside of Easter, Christmas Eve is usually the highest attended service of the year in most churches, and that is no small thing. We have found that families love to gather for Christmas Eve services, year after year, and they provide a tremendous opportunity to share the gospel. My only recommendation is that you keep these services short; no longer than 55 minutes or so.
3. Christmas Music
This is a time full of great Christmas music. There is possibly no greater tradition that evokes more memories, and nostalgia, than the playing and singing of Christmas music. The debate over how early Christmas music can be played each year is among the most hotly contested arguments some families have (all in jest, of course). This is a great opportunity to reach backwards into your collection of song, and bring out some great Christmas carols of years gone by. Adults love the nostalgia and sharing their childhood with their own children, and many of these songs are rich gospel affirmations. I highly encourage you to be as traditional as possible during the Christmas season.
Finally, I love to give and receive communion during Christmas. For one, it’s a great tradition and Christmas is an excellent opportunity to remember tradition. Beyond that, though, Christmas matters because it leads us to Easter. In other words, the birth of Jesus is spectacular, in significant part, because it leads us to the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a great opportunity, at Christmas, to connect the birth of the infant Messiah with his death and resurrection in our place.
Christmas is special. It is powerful. It is emotional. And it is centered on Jesus. Help your church celebrate well this year by reaching back into Christmas celebrations of years gone by. This may be one of the few times each year that tradition is actually a strategic opportunity to reach more people with the message of the gospel, and to serve them in ways that encourages and blesses them.